Monday, January 10, 2011

First Book Reviews of the Year

I am going to attempt to review most of the books I read this year.  So far, I’ve read 2, both of which I got at the library.  The first is The Mighty Queens of Freeville by Amy Dickinson.  This was a book club book and while I was at the library picking it up, they had Alan Brennert’s Honolulu on display at the circulation desk, so I snatched that one up too.

Amy Dickinson is best known for writing the Ask Amy column that took over when Ann Landers died.  She also is a commentator on NPR.  Her book was supposed to be about the town of Freeville NY and the women there who raised her and supported her and her daughter when Amy’s marriage to her husband (CBS reporter Anthony Mason) fell apart.

That is a book I would have loved to read.  Instead, while interesting enough and a good enough read, the book is about her coping with the divorce while making occasional trips back to her hometown.  The book is wildly out of sequence, as we discussed in book club (in one chapter, her cat Pumpkin dies, in the next chapter, Pumpkin is alive and well).  Dickinson herself is likeable, and I found myself cheering for her successes and marveling at how she got through her low points, but in fact, the part I liked most was probably the part she expected her readers to like the least:  the part in which she encounters her wayward dad, Buck, and goes on an adventure in the mud with him.  Buck abandoned Amy’s mother when the children were young, and has infrequent contact with his children thereafter.  Amy’s marriage suffers similarly in that her husband is a globetrotting reporter who is frequently absent.  (Although he turns out to be a good dad to young Emily despite his long travels around the world.)  Still, having grown up in the North Country, to which Amy alludes, I have known many such “Bucks” in my life, and they really are the kind of colorful characters that Amy may have inadvertently portrayed her father as, and they can be lovable in their own way.  But of course, I say that without Buck being my dad.

In the end, Amy packages everything with a nice neat bow, meeting a new love interest and scoring Ask Amy while Emily happily goes off to college.  Life is messy and a “happily ever after” ending to a memoir is rarely satisfying, as is true in this case.  Amy’s story has yet to be written, as has mine, and if I finished writing my memoirs with moving to Virginia, or adopting my daughter, or conquering even some of my personal demons, I would leave out some of the best parts and lead my readers to conclude that life can be tidily summed up in an endpoint, even if it goes on. 

That being said, I gave Mighty Queens 3 stars on Goodreads.  Worth a shot if you need a quick book to pass the time.  The girls in my book club all seemed to feel about the same about it.  Thanks for the pick, Lauren!

Now, if you have been reading my book reviews or my blogs for a while, you will know that last year I was forced to read Molokai for my book club.  This Alan Brennert book was a book I was convinced that I would hate, as a) my best friend Lesley LOVED it and b) I have no interest in the topics of leprosy or Pacific Island type stuff.  Strangely though, I was totally drawn into the story of Rachel and her life in a leper colony and can say without hesitation that it was one of the best books I read last year.

During the book club discussion, it came out that Brennert had written another book called Honolulu and some of the girls wondered if it would be as good.  I mentally resolved that I would not read it, because it is about a young woman from Korea moving to Hawaii as a picture bride and again, no interest in Pacific Island stories and even less in stories about Asia.  (Sorry, but there it is!)

However, when I went to pick up Mighty Queens from the library, there was Honolulu, almost mocking me, from a perch on the circulation desk.  Impulsively, I grabbed it and when I finished my first book, I started in on Honolulu.  And I found it as compulsively readable as Molokai.

Honolulu is a story about Regret, a young picture bride from Korea.  Stifling in her father’s home, she consults a matchmaker and is soon betrothed to a Mr. Noh in Hawaii, who presents himself as a wealthy plantation worker in the Hawaiian islands, painted by Koreans as being paved with golden streets and rife with opportunity.  Regret forces her father’s hand to allow her to go to Hawaii for the marriage, and soon discovers not the wealthy and kind man who will allow her to be education, but a gambling alcoholic who beats her and kills their unborn child.  Regret flees from Mr. Noh’s shack, renames herself Jin (Korean for “gem”), and embarks on carving out a new life for herself in the Hawaiian capital city.

The story is fairly intricate, and you easily find yourself immersed in the story of Jin’s life in Hawaii only to be reminded of the “little sister” she left behind (a 5 year old girl betrothed to Jin’s brother), only to be brought back to Mr. Noh only to go back to Jin’s friends and fellow picture brides and their families.  Each and every story line remains compelling till the end of the book when Brennert gets bogged down in some actual Hawaiian history, which he clearly wanted to include in the book, but which overtook the driving story line, that being the tale of The Massie Affair.  To be honest, while I am typically a true crime buff, I really just wanted to get back to Regret/Jin’s story and so I skimmed much of the 20 or so pages devoted to this whole thing so I could get back to what I considered the real meat and potatoes of the book.

I laughed and cried and cheered and hoped for Regret and her friends and their stories.  I loved how the book concluded, and how the characters struggled with issues bigger than themselves and lived very human lives at the same time.  Alan Brennert is fast rising to the top of my “must read authors” list.  I gave the book 4 stars on GoodReads just because it did get off track with the Massie stuff, otherwise it would have gotten 5.  Check this one out today!

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

My One and Only Book Challenge this Year

Last year, I signed up for 4 book challenges and managed to complete 3 of them. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, my favorite one was the What's In a Name challenge, and this year I am only signing up for that one. I didn't like feeling the pressure of having to try and cram in the challenge reading. Still, I'm proud I completed 3 of them anyway!

The categories this year are pretty cool too!

Between January 1 and December 31, 2011, read one book in each of the following categories:

1. A book with a number in the title
2. A book with jewelry or a gem in the title
3. A book with a size in the title
4. A book with travel or movement in the title
5. A book with evil in the title
6. A book with a life stage in the title

I'm not even going to speculate what books I might read to fill these in, as most of the books I thought I'd read starting out last year didn't make the cut in the end. Still, it should be fun reading!

If you want to sign up, go to

Happy reading!

Monday, January 03, 2011

Old Year, New Year

Well, the holidays have come and more or less gone. This weekend we will have our big Three Kings dinner and then it will be official.  I’m glad to be cleaning up the house a bit here and there, and glad that I’ve scheduled Leah to go to Melissa’s the weekend after 3 Kings :)

We had a great Christmas and a lot that we did this year, like usual.  The highlights were of course ICE and the Ginter Gardens.  Christmas Day was special in that I got to see my niece, whom I adore. 

I enjoyed shopping this year.  I read an article about why Christmas spending was up this year when the past few years have been dismal, sales figure wise.  It seems that everyone was feeling the way I did this year:  “Screw it.  I’m sick of being frugal.”  That’s the truth.  This year, I was sick of worrying about it.  I just started shopping in November and quit about 3 days before Christmas.  Yes, we went way overboard, but I am happy to report that both girls loved everything they got and Leah is finally happy to find things to do all over the house.  She loves her kitchen, her car, and her ball pit.  She loves her shopping cart, her little book with attached piano, and her “laptop”.  Penny is rarely seen without the earbuds to her iPod firmly in place (yes, it’s annoying, we no longer have conversations in the car, but the fact is, I did this as a teen with my walkman, so the heck with it!).  When I can’t find her, odds are good she’s tucked up somewhere with her DSi or challenging me to a quick round of MarioKart, and I’m happy to say that we can now take pictures reliably with her new camera.  We also don’t see her wacky t-shirts with crazy Engrish on them from Thailand any more. She got more clothes than anyone could imagine! :)

We spent New Year’s quietly alone.  When the clock struck 12, we heard the fireworks from Old Town and ran outside to discover our neighbors somewhere behind us banging on pots and pans and hooting and hollering.  In the spirit suddenly, I shouted “Happy New Year!” in the general direction of the bushes, and heard lots of “Happy new Year!”s shouted in return.  We spent the rest of the weekend laying in groceries for the week and watching a lot of reality TV.  We got totally wrapped up in Sister Wives, which caused Penny to declare that there are a lot of strange people in this country (no kidding!).  She fell madly in love with David Tutera and My Fair Wedding and we discussed the pros and cons of my love affair with Billy the Exterminator

We spent a good bit of time looking at colleges for Penny too.  She has decided that she really would like to attend college in the US if possible.  We discussed her career goals and we have finally settled on the fact that she would like to become a lawyer.  For some reason, she has her heart set on going to Harvard, and she has seen for herself that extra-curricular activities will factor into whether or not she gets into college in the US.  She is going into school today with a renewed enthusiasm for joining some clubs and some community organizations as well.  We also discussed the possibility that if she didn’t get into Harvard, she needed some back up schools, so she is going to look at Boston University, University of Richmond, and Bryant University (where the Chief went—as much as I influence her on her personal matters, he is a big influence on her professionally speaking).  We will be going up to New England in April and she will be able to take a look at the schools then.  Hopefully this will give her a better idea of whether she actually wants to go there and she can also start taking the exams she needs to take.  (Notably the TOEFL and SAT’s, fun!)  We talked yesterday about her friends’ plans.  It seems that most of her friends are graduating but have no entry into college, so she feels that they will probably be sitting around or going on a year abroad or something.  She was somewhat disappointed that most of them hadn’t learned a foreign language enough to consider going abroad to go to college.  Her mindset has truly changed in the 4 months that she has been here, and she has come to see the world as a place of possibility, not one where she is trapped into a certain way of doing things.  I am proud of this change in her from the girl she was in August.

We have made some changes already in the New Year.  The bedtime thing has been hard, but I’ve been doing it, and the change in my overall attitude and disposition is stunning.  I have much more patience and energy.  It means I get a lot less time to spend by myself, as I used to “outwait” everyone else to get a couple of hours of peace and quiet, but now I just snuggle up with the mister and sleep overtakes me very quickly.  It has also forced me in just a couple of short days to really prioritize what I want to get done.  With only 2 hours between when Leah goes to bed and when I get ready to go to bed, I need to decide what’s the most important to get done:  housekeeping, exercise, reading, computer time, family games, Nintendo, TV, and so on.  I have actually been reading a bit more than usual and been a lot more efficient about other things, including the journals I’ve been keeping and spending less time connected to the computer.

Overall, I’d say my major goal in 2011 is to reduce waste.  Wasted time, wasted food, wasted money.  If 2010 taught me anything, it is that life is very short and that I don’t always make good choices in how to expend the resources at my disposal.  I choose the wrong times, the wrong people, the wrong “stuff”…  I can’t say it’s easy, but I do have some changes in mind that I hope to accomplish and I hope to be less worried about how that affects other people and non-priorities in my life (I’m pretty sure Walmart will continue to thrive with or without my buying crap at their store).   Hopefully I’ll blog a bit more this year, it is hard with posting to Facebook a lot, but maybe I’ll do that a little bit less too… 

Happy 2011, everyone!  Thanks for a great 2010.